Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Did David Bowie have a soul?

I remember years ago, when the Queen Mary ocean liner was finally retired in Long Beach, California, the owners of the celebrity ship (now just a public spectacle) decided to have it refurbished. This involved repainting the ship's three magnificent smokestacks which were part of the visual allure of this, one of the greatest of boats. But in the process of repainting them, they fell apart. As it turned out, the metal inside had long ago rusted out. The smokestacks, in fact, were all paint.

I always felt sorry for David Bowie. You could tell that he thrived on public attention. In fact, that seemed to be his whole purpose in life, and he was very good at it. He was good at other things too: He was a great songwriter, and a dynamic performer. But it was all in the service of his public image.

Sometimes you wondered if there really was anything underneath the image he had so carefully crafted. Was there anyone really there under all the makeup? Or was he all paint?

The ego is a strange thing: It seeks to gather everything to itself, but it is never filled. It paints itself over again and again into what it wants to be to the point where you begin to wonder if there is still any self left there. I imagine this is why so many celebrities are miserable in their private lives. I always wondered if Bowie suffered from this malady so typical of the pop star. Was there unhappiness under the glitter? If there was, he was too good at cultivating his image to ever let us see it.

It seems almost irrelevant to ask of Bowie what we should ask of anyone who takes the trouble to live a life: the question of whether the life he lived was a good life. We don't like to ask this question of pop culture figures because the question seems irrelevant.

You judge something on the basis of whether it achieves its purpose. But the purpose of a celebrity is not to be good; The purpose of a celebrity is to be interesting. That, at least, is what we seem to assume.

While we are fascinated by the gap between how celebrities appear and what they are in their private lives (this is the whole allure of People magazine, E! Television, and the National Enquirer), we do not expect the twain to meet. This is why we are so forgiving when they die: Not because we are so gracious, but because to be morally good people was never what we expected of them. That was not their role. Their role was to play roles: We never expected them to be the way they portrayed themselves to be. 

Bowie certainly benefited from this tendency to look the other way when it came to his personal life. He was, by the account of his first wife, narcissistic and sexually indiscriminate.

His ability to transform himselfto take off one mask and put on anothermade David Bowie seem the quintessential postmodernist celebrity. Postmodernist writers have always been fascinated with people who seem to reinvent themselves. It underscores their belief that we are not created in any particular way, with any particular nature; instead, we create ourselveswe determine our own nature.

This is why postmodernists have always been fascinated with Madonna. If you read postmodernist literature (I'm not advising it, I'm only saying, if you do), her name pops up again and again. Why? Because she is constantly recreating her public self. Once she gets tired of one persona, she just goes into her personality closet and chooses another one. 

Of course, the ability to create necessarily requires a good imagination, and most of us don't have the requisite imagination to create much of anything, let alone ourselves. Maybe that's why so many of us seem dull: We don't have the requisite imagination we need to create a very interesting self.

But Bowie had an imagination. 

This was at the root of his androgynous pose. In the same way he became Ziggy Stardust, Alladin Sane, the Thin White Duke, he became female, male, male/female, neither. In fact, it is astounding to think back on how he managed to make androgyny cooleven among people who would have reviled homosexuality if you had asked them openly about it. Today you are given bonus points for sexual unconventialityand extra bonus points the farther out your gender orbit is from your natural heterosexuality. But how could someone who was openly androgynous in a time when the culture still widely adhered to traditional gender ideas have become so popular? 

Only the protean Bowie could have pulled it off. He was the human chameleon.

But there is something about the gender mirror show he put on that tells us something about Bowie that it is easy to miss, and it is this: As much as he appeared the examplar of the postmodern self— fluid, ever-changing, impermanent—and despite the fact that much of what he did actually promoted this idea, Bowie was, in fact, a counter-example.

How do we know this? Because he said so himself. Although his androgynous poses certainly gave the appearance of promoting the idea of gender fluidity, Bowie himself knew it was all just an act. He knew the difference between being able to actually transform yourself and simply putting on another mask. This is why he denied being gay and said that his one-time announcement that he was bisexual was "the biggest mistake" he ever made. The androgyny was no revelation of who Bowie really was, it was just one more role he had decided to playfor whatever reason: shock value, fame, whatever. To him, it was a beautiful lie, a lie he openly admitted.

One clue we get about this is the lyrics to his songs. Notice that Bowie almost never talked about personal feelings in his songs. Bowie writes about "Panic in Detroit, and "1984," and "Spiders from Mars." His lyrics chart the universe, but they never delve the soul.

Compare this to another great pop songwriter, Tom Petty, who always stays close to earth, writing about how he doesn't want anyone "Draggin' my Heart Around." "Don't Do Me Like That," "You Wreck Me," "The Waiting," "Refugee"—these songs have the same personal sensibility you find in country music, which is where, rather than purely popular music, Petty finds his roots. They are about personal relationships, anger, love, loss, resentment—all the things each one of us experiences every day. In fact, notice how many of Petty's songs are addressed personally to someone else. They are every bit as morally relaxed as Bowie's songs, but at least they have a beating heart.

You never see this in Bowie. To talk this way would allow us to see behind the mask.

This is why, in the end, Bowie should be anathema to the postmodern gender theorists, who mistake the masks for reality. They, unlike Bowie himself, can't tell the act from the real thing. To them being gay or bisexual, or whatever other invented gender category they give a name to, is "who you are." Bowie didn't go in for this. Bowie's problem was just the opposite: He considered his actions to be completely disconnected from who he was.

Bowie knew he was playing a role. All the same, there a those who are so good in playing somebody else that they have a hard time returning to reality. Sometimes there's so much paint that if there is something there, it's hard, even for the person himself, to figure out what or who it is.

So now Bowie has undergone the final transformation, only this one doesn't involve another role. The mask is off. I would love to know, when they took off all the paint, what they found underneath.


Anonymous said...

I have always felt sorry for Martin Cothran, you can tell he thrives on public attention.

Anonymous said...

Art is a demanding mistress, and rarely a pleasantly conventional one. Bowie's musical and visual imagery was far-ranging and fearless. But the strange places he took us were places already in the human psyche - yours too! - not his own inventions. That's why he resonated with so many. Isn't the human soul more complicated than is convenient? Bowie himself said he "sampled everything Western culture had to offer" - but in the end, he chose to be a devoted husband and father. Maybe that should figure into your assessment too.

Anonymous said...

Great observations. Thanks for writing.